Ricky Staub‘s unrestrained coming-of-age urban western Concrete Cowboy, adapted from Greg Neri’s novel, follows a teenage boy’s reunion with his estranged father, telling a story of finding your place in the world, rejecting the easy way out while growing into the person you were all along. During one summer we watch Cole, involuntary having to spend time in Philadelphia, as he discovers an unconventional way of living, growing into a young man able to choose his own destiny.

The story begins in Detroit with Cole (Caleb McLaughlin – ‘Stranger Things‘), a troubled 15-year-old know-it-all. After a fight gets him expelled from yet another school, his fed-up mother drives him 600 miles east and drops him on his father’s doorstep. Harp (Idris Elba – ‘Luther‘) and Cole stand eye to eye, as if we’re witnessing a classic western showdown. We never get any explanation on why he’s been absent from his son’s life, but loner Harp’s love for horses runs deep, spending all his time at the Fletcher Street stables down the block. Cole would rather go back to Detroit, but has no other choice than help out in the stables where he joins other riders who fight for their way of living. When his childhood best friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome – ‘Moonlight‘) pulls up, their friendship rekindles like no time has passed, and Cole gets slowly pulled into a world of drug dealing. It’s now up to Cole to make his own choices, bringing him closer to his father while figuring out who he really is.

Home isn’t a place, it’s fam.

Staub’s directorial debut is an ambitious piece of storytelling. In an early scene, Cole wanders the streets of Philadelphia after being kicked out of his father’s place. He decides to break in to the stables and gets up close with the majestic animals who inhabit this space. The next morning, his dad’s friendly neighbour (a remarkable Lorraine Toussaint) finds him sleeping next to the untamed horse, Boo, everyone’s afraid of. Cole has a unique way of connecting with those around him, he just rather keeps up appearances instead of showing the vulnerable side he’s not fully in touch with yet. By hanging out with Harp’s fellow urban cowboys, he slowly comes out of his shell, which also makes his decision-making easier when it comes to choosing the right path for himself.

Concrete Cowboy is strongest when it focuses on one character at a time, giving the actors the chance to shine and for the viewer to completely understand their thoughts and actions. The stunning cinematography is the films strongest suit, with the magical score coming in next to give a different feeling to the urban setting. It almost feels like a fairy tale, seeing the horses graze grass with the city of Philadelphia as the backdrop – exceptional photography.

Even if the film excels in plenty of technical elements, it does fail to keep that momentum going with the story after a remarkably strong first half, falling into familiar territory when trying to implement crime elements. The whole drugs dealing side-story has been done and feels uninspired compared to the much stronger and heartfelt main story. The only thing that makes the side-story worth paying attention to is Jerome’s performance, who after his work in When They See Us (for which he won an Emmy Award) proves he’s here to stay. Elba and McLaughlin have great chemistry as father and son, playing off each other like a game of tennis, while the real life urban cowboys do a decent job at acting. It isn’t until the end credits, where they share their own life-experiences, you finally realize these aren’t trained actors.

Staub never downgrades his strong Black ensemble, nor does the film revel in the melodrama of being outsiders. The filmmaker explores one of America’s most unique subcultures with respect, defying stereotypes (until we switch back to the disappointing side-story) by sharing the eye-opening history of Black cowboys and criticizing Hollywood’s role in their way of whitewashing this part of history.

Concrete Cowboy is a compelling directorial debut, mainly due to its driven cast, that’s passionate about the beauty that lies in the legacy of Black Cowboys. The wild west doesn’t get more contemporary than this.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Concrete Cowboy will have its final screening at TIFF20:
– Saturday, September 19 at 9pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tickets are available HERE

TIFF20 Review – ‘Concrete Cowboy’

Reviewed online (as part of Toronto International Film Festival), September 15, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 111 min.

PRODUCTION: A Green Door Pictures, Lee Daniels Entertainment, Neighborhood Film Co., Tucker Tooley Entertainment production. Producers: Tucker Tooley, Lee Daniels, Idris Elba, Dan Walser, Jeff Waxman, Jennifer Madeloff. Executive producers: Greg Renker, Jason Barhydt, Gregoire Gensollen, Lorraine Burgess, Greg Neri, Sam Mercer, Tegan Jones, Staci Hagenbaugh, Alistair Burlingham, Gary Raskin.

CREW: Director: Ricky Staub. Screenplay: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser. Editor: Luke Ciarrocchi. Cinematography: Minka Farthing-Kohl. Music: Kevin Matley.

WITH: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Clifford “Method Man” Smith.

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